How Elizabeth Arden Lured Urban One-Percenters to the Maine Woods

The cosmetics maven came to the Belgrade Lakes and invented the destination spa.

Elizabeth Arden Belgrade Lakes destination spa Maine Chance
A promotional image from Maine Chance of one of its exercise classes.
By Susan Geib
From our June 2020 issue

Around 1907, an enterprising Ontario farm girl named Florence Nightingale Graham landed in New York City and found work in a shop offering skin creams and treatments. She learned all she could, and after a couple of years, she and a partner, Elizabeth Hubbard, opened their own Fifth Avenue salon. When Hubbard backed out after less than a year, the 29-year-old Graham left her former partner’s first name on the window, to save money on relettering, then simply invented a new surname. Soon, she was using her shop’s name as her own: Elizabeth Arden.

Over the next two decades, Arden would all but create the modern cosmetics industry. She turned her Fifth Avenue shop, with its iconic red door, into what we’d now call a day spa, bringing skin care, hairdressing, and exercise all under one roof. She convinced her upscale clients they needed makeup, something no society matron would have been caught dead in prior to World War I. She grew her salon into an international chain and reached a wider market by placing products in department stores. And she invented the modern spa resort, convincing one-percenters to seek luxury and pampering in a seemingly unlikely place: the backwoods of interior Maine. 

Arden built her worldwide beauty empire through relentless work, ruthless opportunism, and social climbing — she had, as the saying goes, “an eye for the main chance.” Ascending New York’s social ladder in the 1920s, she fell in with Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, a literary and theatrical agent who belonged to a sisterhood of wealthy, influential society women who were both progressives and lesbians. (Arden, by contrast, was a stringent conservative, and what we know about her sexuality is murky.) Some 20 years Arden’s senior, Marbury became a business mentor and a mother figure. When Marbury bought a summer retreat on Long Pond, in Maine’s Belgrade Lakes, in the mid-1920s, Arden came to visit and was instantly enchanted.

In 1929, Arden bought a 750-acre property in Mount Vernon, adjoining Marbury’s, for her own summer estate, which she named Maine Chance Farm. While she tended to her burgeoning business, Marbury supervised the construction and interior design of a grand new house for her protégée. When Arden visited Long Pond, she brought society friends from New York and staff from her Fifth Avenue salon, to entertain her guests with beauty treatments, exercise sessions, and dance performances, all on her dime.

The sprawling property, straddling the border of Rome and Mount Vernon, today houses the Travis Mills Foundation’s veterans retreat.

Marbury, meanwhile, pursued her own pleasures, which included fishing and Democratic politics. When she died in 1933, at 76, her will stipulated that her Maine property become “a home for working women.” Out of loyalty, Arden led the fundraising effort, but when she and Eleanor Roosevelt were the only contributors, she bought the property instead, combined it with hers, and began developing a sprawling health spa. It was time for Maine Chance to make money.

Maine Chance opened for business in the summer of 1934. Arden’s target market was her salon’s patrons and their peers: upper-crust ladies weary of charity balls, sapped by city heat, and insulated from the Great Depression. She promised women of a certain class that they could improve their lives by enhancing their looks through exercise, beauty treatments, and dieting. Arden’s genius was to marry the work this regimen demanded with luxury — diet meals served on fine china — and with Maine’s reputation for healthful, pastoral beauty.

“Arden capitalized on Maine’s rusticity,” says University of Southern Maine associate professor Lisa Walker, a gender studies scholar who has collected oral histories from former Maine Chance staff.“This was part of the ‘invention of New England’ at the time, the notion that city folk could be rejuvenated at a back-to-Eden rural retreat.”

Eden probably had fewer amenities than Maine Chance, which brought indulgence to inland Maine on a scale mostly associated with coastal summer colonies. In addition to the treatment and exercise centers, the property included the Arden house — full of gilt and mirrors — plus sumptuous gardens, a carousel, a swimming pool and private sunbathing enclosure, a bowling alley, tennis courts, riding stables, and a boathouse servicing a small fleet. Guests, who reportedly included celebrities like Judy Garland and Ava Gardner, stayed in the Arden and Marbury houses and other cottages throughout the property.

In the resort’s early days, a week at Maine Chance cost $500. The days had their own rhythm: Early each morning, a maid appeared carrying a breakfast tray laden with pink china and linen, a rose, and very little food. The ladies donned robes over their exercise suits — strange, unflattering tank-topped onesies — and endured a daily weigh-in. Exercise classes filled the morning, followed by a light lunch and a rest. The afternoon was devoted to spa treatments or relaxing on the lawn or the shore of Long Pond. Some treatments promised both health and weight loss, like the “Ardena bath,” in which a guest’s body was encased in 9 pounds of melted paraffin wax, “to reach down to the very roots of your nerves to free them from tenseness and fatigue,” as a flier explained. The average weekly weight loss at Maine Chance was said to be 6 pounds, making the spa a substantial per-pound investment.

In the evening, the ladies made up their faces with Arden cosmetics, put on gowns and jewels, and were chauffeured to the Arden house to sip mocktails of vegetable juice followed by a lean dinner and some bridge. Alcohol was forbidden and confiscated if found (although ladies would sometimes bribe chauffeurs to sneak them to nightclubs in Waterville).

Maine Chance was successful enough that, in 1946, Arden opened a second, winter spa in Arizona (also named Maine Chance). It too attracted Hollywood stars, who added to the glamour and allure of Arden’s products. The spas were a marketing tool: women of more modest means saw them showcased in glossy magazines and were invited to share in the magic by visiting an Arden salon or just buying a tube of lipstick. In a sense, Maine was central to the mystique of the first modern lifestyle brand. 

“Arden had an intuitive understanding of what female consumers wanted without necessarily knowing they wanted it,” Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn says. “She was way ahead of her time in realizing that women needed a push to believe that they deserved to feel good about themselves, because that’s fundamentally about power.”

Maine Chance outlived Arden, who died in 1966. By then, the resort’s glamor had faded somewhat. Its original clientele, many of whom blanched at the arrival of the nouveaux riches in the ’50s, grew older and died, and their daughters and granddaughters chased the next new thing in an increasingly booming spa industry. In 1970, Maine Chance closed after a fire destroyed the spa treatment center. The heat, it seems, had been left on under the wax for the Ardena bath.

Photos courtesy of the Elizabeth Arden Corporation (black and white images); University of Southern Maine Digital Commons, courtesy of Stephen Tufano, Creative Commons (